Choose a shoe made from natural materials
Whether you're looking for a fancy heel or a comfy slip, you may want to consider some eco-friendly alternatives to leather or plastic. Choose a shoe made of natural materials such as hemp, jute, crepe, bamboo, or cork and you'll be walking your way to a more sustainable life.
Find it! Eco-friendly shoes
Choosing shoes made from natural materials results in minimal environmental damage during the production process and limits the amount of harmful synthetic materials used by substituting natural ones.
Patagonia's outdoor (think backwoods) and casual (think boardroom) shoes for men, women, and children feature hevea milk natural latex, hemp laces, recycled rubber outsoles, and are, true to Patagonia's raison d'être, environmentally responsible (and look darn good too).
Vegan-eating, Harvard-graduating, Golden Globe-winning actress Natalie Portman can now add sustainable shoe designer to her list of credentials with her line of cruelty-free shoes for coveted NYC ladies luxury footwear emporium, Té Casan.
Choosing a shoe made from natural materials helps you go green because...
- Hemp, jute, cork, and other natural materials are grown chemical-free in a sustainable manner.
- Using enzymes in the production of leather instead of chemicals cuts back on the pollution that typically results from the tanning process.
Conventional shoes are usually made with leather, the tanning of which results in some seriously toxic wastes. Synthetic options, such as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pose their own environmental hazards. But new, more green shoe materials are being developed all the time, some of which we feature here.
Hazardous shoe components
Perhaps not-so-natural, leather used in any application—shoes included—has many eco-drawbacks. Although desired by many, leather—the byproduct of animal skins—is ecologically harmful. For one, raising livestock for meat and leather production requires a great deal of feed, land, water, and fossil fuels. Factory farms generate 130 times the amount of excrement as the entire human population and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has noted that livestock pollution is the most damaging threat to American waterways.
But beyond livestock rearing, the process used to tan leather has long been noxious and polluting. Toxins from tanneries includes mineral salts, such as aluminum, iron, and zirconium, as well as formaldehyde and coal-tar derivatives. Certain oils and dyes used in the tanning process are cyanide-based. Similar to the rest of the world, more than 95 percent of American-made leather is chrome-tanned. The production of chrome-tanned leather contributes waste to the environment, including chromium, which is classified as a hazardous material by the EPA. Chromium released from tanneries can contaminate drinking water and is dangerous to ecosystems as well as humans. Tanneries also produce other pollutants, including protein, salt, hair, lime sludge, sulfides, and acids.
Shoes made of PVC—a soft plastic used commonly in consumer products—pose severe environmental risks throughout their life cycle. The manufacture of PVC creates toxic pollution, threatening the health of both factory workers and the communities surrounding factory sites. When disposed of, lead, phthalates—which are industrial compounds used to make plastics soft—and other toxic additives can leach into the ground and drinking water supplies from landfills. Ninety percent of the phthalates used today are used to make PVC, and lead levels in the environment have increased by 1,000 times in the past few hundred years.
Incineration of PVC products produces dioxins and furans, which are among the most toxic environmental contaminants and are known carcinogens. Recycling is not an option with PVC plastic: one PVC item can contaminate a batch of 100,000 recyclable bottles.
Eco-friendly shoe alternatives
The technology for tanning leather in a more environmentally friendly way is now available. Scientists in India have zeroed in on enzymes, a natural alternative, that can replace the chemicals and cut down on the pollution from leather tanning by 85 percent. Microfiber artificial leather is another alternative to traditional leather that's safer for the environment. Microfiber leather avoids using organic solvents released during tanning (which end up in the effluent wastewater).
Shoe footbeds can be made out of cork, which is a sustainable material. Cork can be stripped from the bark every 10 years without harming the tree. If the bark ages too much, the stripping process becomes harmful, so regular stripping is best for the health of the tree.
Less-toxic rubber production
There are also new processes that can reduce the amount of toxins released during the production of rubber, which is often used in the outsoles of shoes. By using natural materials such as vegetable oils and changing the processing methods, chemists have been able to develop a greener rubber outsole. With this process, 96 percent fewer toxic substances are released by weight. Shoes with green rubber look, perform, and cost the same as those with traditional rubber.
Despite the controversy surrounding hemp's status as a legal crop—especially in the United States where it is considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance like marijuana— it is an earth-friendly alternative to conventional cotton. Hemp produces three times as much fiber per acre as cotton. Like cotton, hemp requires water and fertilizer to grow but it doesn't need to be treated with pesticides or herbicides. The farming of hemp benefits overall soil conditions by adding nutrients, fostering microbial life, and eradicating weed growth.
In contrast to the dearth of industrial hemp farming in the United States, the European Union initiated a program in the 1990s that provides hemp farmers with subsidies to encourage hemp fiber production. Over the last several years, the leading exporters of processed hemp fiber to the United States have been Romania, Poland, China, India, Canada, and the Philippines.
Bamboo fiber, a natural fiber spun from the pulp of bamboo grass, resembles cotton in its unspun state. However, that's where the similarities end as bamboo is considered a sustainable crop. It doesn't require the use of pesticides or fertilizers, needs little water, and is a self-renewing plant, meaning that new shoots grow on an uninterrupted basis. Bamboo also releases a great deal of oxygen into the air—even more than trees—helping to lower levels of carbon dioxide and curb soil erosion.
The same natural antifungal, antibacterial agent found in bamboo plants that acts as a sort of internal pesticide (called "Bamboo kun") is also useful in bamboo clothing, controlling bacteria growth on the skin, as well as moisture levels. This is especially beneficial for those prone to night sweats and for athletes. Bamboo fabric is a natural insulator and can be worn in both the summer to keep cool and the winter to keep warm.
Jute can be used to make shoes and is one of the softest natural fibers. It is derived from the fibrous stalks of the jute plant grown in China, India, and Bangladesh. The fiber is loosened from the stem by soaking it in water. Jute is a durable fiber and can withstand a lot of abrasion and it is resistant to mildew and mold. However, the fiber is absorbent and will deteriorate if consistently exposed to moisture and sunlight.
EVA: An alternative to PVC
The Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CEHJ) recommends Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) as a safer PVC-free plastic alternative. EVA is a durable, flexible, transparent copolymer plastic that does not require a plasticizer. Becuase it does not require a plasticizer to be flexible, it is phthalate-free, and is therefore considered to be nontoxic. EVA is often used in shoe footbeds as a shock absorber.
Hemp and marijuana are both members of the plant species Cannabis sativa and have both been considered Schedule One controlled substances in the United States since the late 1950s. While it is a crime to grow all forms of cannabis in the United States, it is not illegal to sell hemp products such as paper and clothing. Cannabis grown for industrial purposes (hemp), and cannabis grown for recreational and medicinal uses (marijuana) have a different biological makeup. Both contain two distinct "cannabinoids:" the psychoactive THC and the anti-psychoactive CBD. Industrial hemp contains high levels of CBD and low levels—less than one percent—of THC, while the makeup of marijuana is the reverse. It is nearly impossible to achieve a narcotic high from smoking hemp.
- dioxins: Chemicals produced during industrial processes, most often combustion. They contain chlorine that can harm humans, usually when ingested through food grown in soil where dioxins have accumulated.
- phthalates: A group of chemicals used as plasticisers in PVC plastics that are known to be testicular toxins and can disrupt hormones.
- polyvinyl chloride (PVC): A strong plastic polymer that can be made flexible through the use of plasticizers. These plasticizers, not the PVC itself, can be toxic and carcinogenic. However, the monomer used to make PVC, vinyl chloride, is carcinogenic, posing a serious health threat to the people who work at factories where PVC is created.
- Hemp Stores Directory of retailers that sell hemp-based clothing and other products
- Sustainable Style Foundation
- The Green Guide on shoes
- International Council of Tanners
- Hemp Industries Association
- Cows are Cool - Leather: No Friend of the Earth
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Shoes
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Ground Water & Drinking Water: Factsheet on Chromium
- Illinois Attorney General - Madigan Announces Illinois Recall of Vinyl Baby Bibs Containing Lead
- Our Stolen Future - About phthalates
- Center for Environmental Health - Target Agrees To Reduce Use of PVC, a "Poison Plastic"
- The Center for Environmental Health - An Unnecessary Poison: Babies, Bibs, and Lead
- Hindu Business Line - CLRI develops eco-friendly leather processing technology
- Japan's Corporate News Network - Kuraray Develops Eco-friendly Artificial Leather
- Rainforest Alliance - Put a Sustainable Cork in It
- American Chemical Society - Green Shoes
- Globalhemp.com - Industrial Hemp Investigative and Advisory Task Force Report
- Industrial Hemp: For A Better Tomorrow - Environmental Beneftis of Industrial Hemp
- Federation of American Scientists - CRS Report for Congress: Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity
- wiseGEEK - What is Bamboo Fabric?
- Buy Organic - Benefits of Bamboo Clothing
- TreeHugger - Bamboo Sheets Keep Germs Out of Bed
- TreeHugger - Jute Age or Hemp Age
- International Jute Study Group
- Green Sage - Learning Center: Natural Carpet
- The Soft Landing - Are Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) Baby Teethers Non-Toxic?
- Arizona Industrial Hemp Council - Hemp vs. Marijuana